Legal Brief for April, 2017

Treaty 6

An increasingly common practice at public events in Edmonton is a statement read aloud at the start of the event acknowledging that the land on which the meeting or event is held is "Treaty 6 territory" and that the land was "a traditional meeting ground for Indigenous peoples" or words to like effect.  The City of Edmonton now opens its Council meetings with a such a statement.  All conferences and public events held on the campus of the University of Alberta also open with a similar acknowledgment.  At the Citadel Theatre, as part of a pre-recorded announcement that is played just prior to the start of the play there is also a Treat 6 lands acknowledgment.  It is likely that most people who are not of Indigenous heritage have little idea as to why these statements are being made.

Treaty 6 was one of a series of treaties signed between representatives of the Government of Canada on behalf of the Crown and leaders of a number of Plains and Wood Cree, Assiniboine and Ojibwa First Nations.  The initial signing of the Treaty occurred on August 23, 1876 at Fort Carlton, in what is now present day Saskatchewan.  The area covered by the Treaty includes most of the central areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan.  Treaty 6 followed the signing of Treaties 1 to 5 with other Indigenous First Nations in the years prior to 1876, as the settlement of the prairies by European heritage peoples proceeded westward.

Prior to 1869 the area, which had become known as Rupert's Land, had been "owned" by the Hudson's Bay Company as part of the original royal charter granted in 1670 by King Charles II to the grandly titled "Governor and Company of Adventurers of England Trading into Hudson's Bay".  The Government of Canada acquired an interest in what are now the Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan with the purchase of the "ownership" of the Rupert's Land territory from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1869.  The fledgling Government was concerned about possible U.S.  expansion northwards, while Indigenous First Nations were concerned about their well being and future with the diminishing buffalo hunt and the incoming tide of white settlers.  As a result both sides were motivated to provide for order and good relations throughout the area.

The legal effect of Treaty 6 remains in dispute to this day.  The standard government interpretation, based on principles of land ownership from England and elsewhere, views the Indigenous peoples as having "signed over" any title or interest in the lands in the area of Treaty 6, thus making the Crown the full and lawful owner of the territory.  In return, the Indigenous groups received "reserve" parcels of land and promises of certain types of ongoing financial and material assistance.

The Indigenous view of the Treaty is vastly different.  Although the literal written wording of the Treaty does refer to a "ceding and a release and surrender" of the land to the Government of Canada, there was at the time no concept in Indigenous circles of land ownership per se.  Land was a resource to be shared, and it is argued that the intention of the Indigenous First Nations that entered into the Treaty was to embark on a "sharing" of control over the lands with the Government of Canada.  Indigenous First Nations have brought a number of lawsuits over the last 20 years seeking to clarify and confirm their rights under both Treaty 6 as well as other treaties.  Many of these court cases are ongoing to this day, and will be for years ahead.

Regardless of one's view as to the legal effects of Treaty 6, it is beyond dispute that the first residents of the area where we live were the Indigenous First Nations peoples.  It is a welcome sign of respect to the heritage of the First Nations peoples that we have started to publicly acknowledge the history of these lands.  Long before the process of settlement and urbanization started the lands were cared for and respected by the First Nations.

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